In May 2011, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, a columnist I admire, wrote an opinion piece titled “The Myth of American Exceptionalism.” In it he opined that the “problem of the 21st century is the problem of culture,” in particular the “culture of smugness,” the emblem of which “is the term ‘American exceptionalism.’ It has been adopted by the right to mean that America, alone among the nations, is beloved of God.”May has much more to say and much that's worth reading in the remainder of his column. Give it a look.
I wrote a rebuttal, contending that exceptionalism means nothing of the sort, and that no one on the right that I was aware of — and no one, evidently, that Cohen was aware of since he quoted no one to substantiate his thesis — would define exceptionalism as he had.
So I was particularly interested to see a recent “news analysis” by the New York Times’ Scott Shane, a reporter I admire, titled “The Opiate of Exceptionalism.” In it, Shane defines exceptionalism differently than Cohen had — but equally incorrectly. He opines — excuse me, analyzes — that American voters “demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.” He goes on to assert that Americans want their presidents to be “cheerleaders,” and that this is a “national characteristic, often labeled American exceptionalism.”
No, no, and no. American exceptionalism does not imply that — nor is it an assertion of “American greatness,” as Shane also claims. It is something simpler and humbler: recognition that America is, as James Madison said, the “hope of liberty throughout the world,” and that America is different from other nations in ways that are consequential for the world. Let me briefly mention three.
Most nations are founded on blood. America, by contrast, was founded on ideas. This is why anyone from anywhere can move to America and become American. This is among the reasons so many people want to become American — and do. One cannot just as easily move to Japan and become Japanese. Nor can one simply become Ukrainian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Portuguese, or Egyptian.
For those who do become Americans — and especially for their children — anything is possible. Consider such all-Americans as Colin Powell, Jeremy Lin, Bobby Jindal, Tiger Woods, and of course the most obvious example: An African student marries an American girl, and their son goes on to become the president of the United States. When I was a student in Russia years ago, I had friends from Africa and some married Russian girls. Does anyone believe that the children of these couples can hope to succeed Vladimir Putin?
A second way America is exceptional: The ideas on which this nation is based were revolutionary in the 18th century — and still are today. All men are created equal? Governments derive their powers only from the consent of the governed? We are endowed by our Creator with rights and freedoms that no one can take away? China is nowhere close to embracing such principles. Nor is most of the Middle East, the “Arab Spring” notwithstanding. Latin America and Africa have a long way to go. And in Europe, I fear, the commitment to individual liberty has been weakening.
To talk of American exceptionalism is not hubris or chauvinism. It's a simple fact, and an important one. America has been a historically exceptional nation in terms of its power and economy, to be sure, but also, as May stresses, the ideas upon which it was founded and the benefit that has accrued to the world as a result of American largesse.
We need to talk about it more and to value it more deeply because if we no longer think it important that America occupy a special place in the world, if we grow content to just be a nation like every other, if we become satisfied with national mediocrity, then that specialness will rapidly disappear. If those who are at pains to deny that America has been a historically unique place are successful in persuading rising generations of Americans that such thinking is unseemly and unwarranted it'll be much more difficult to persuade our people to make the sacrifices and investments necessary to carry the mantle of American leadership into the future, and both we and the world will be the worse for it.
May adds this thought:
Finally, there is leadership. If America does not accept this responsibility — and that’s how it should be seen, not as a privilege or entitlement, not as a reason to shout “We’re No. 1!” — which nation will? Iran’s theocrats would be eager — but that means they would impose their version of sharia, Islamic law, well beyond their borders. Putin will grab whatever power is within his reach but he would rule, not lead. There are those who see the U.N. as a transnational government. They don’t get why it would be disastrous to give additional authority to a Security Council on which Russia and China have vetoes, or a General Assembly dominated by a so-called Non-Aligned Movement constituted largely of despotic regimes that recently elevated Iran as their president.There's more at the link.